By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Championship baseball comes early this year as Japan aims to extend their dominance over hungry rivals, including the United States, in the 16-team World Baseball Classic starting on Saturday.
Top players have come together ahead of their own regular seasons for the sport's top international competition, with baseball powers such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and South Korea eager for a chance to supplant Japan, winners of the first two editions of the event.
"Our one mission is to win," New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano told New York's WFAN Radio about playing alongside fellow Dominicans Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, and Nelson Cruz. "For us, it's serious."
Players may be in the early stages of building up to form, but a sense of urgency can be felt among many challengers.
The U.S. team was knocked out in the second round in 2006 and in the semi-finals in 2009, and they seem determined to play to their potential as a point of pride.
"I'm very excited to represent the country and wear the red, white and blue," said U.S. second baseman Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds, whose WBC team mates include Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira and last year's National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
"It's something I've always wanted to do since 1996, and I was a batboy in the Olympics," he said, recalling his time as a 15-year-old in his hometown of Atlanta. "Hopefully, we can go out there and make the USA proud. Get that first place ... bring it home."
Forty-five Major League Baseball All-Stars, including seven league MVPs, were on the final WBC rosters, but Japan were going forward without a single active major leaguer as they prepared for their opener against Brazil on Saturday in Fukuoka, Japan.
Former stalwarts Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish are not playing this time, but Japan still figures to be strong with a young, fast team that hopes to ride the right arm of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka, 24, was 10-4 with a 1.87 earned run average last season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and led Nippon Professional Baseball's Pacific League with 169 strikeouts over 173 innings after going 14-6 with a 1.27 ERA the year before.
South Korea, who lost a 10-inning thriller in the 2009 WBC final to Japan, open their campaign in Taichung, Taiwan, on Saturday against the Netherlands.
The Koreans have already tasted the competitive fire of the WBC tournament when four advance scouts for Taiwan reportedly sneaked into one of South Korea's practice games by posing as umpire trainees, according to South Korea's Yonhap News agency.
South Korean manager Ryu Joong-il said he was not bothered by the espionage, according to the report.
"In modern baseball, it's a battle of who gets the edge in collecting advance information, and there's nothing I can do about it," Ryu was quoted as saying.
Taiwan and Australia are also in the Pool B round robin in Taichung, while Cuba, the 2006 runner-up, and China are in Pool A in Fukuoka, with two teams advancing from each group.
Cuba, who featured Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes in 2009 before both players defected to join the major leagues, are bringing another highly heralded player in Jose Abreu.
First baseman Abreu, 26, batted .394 with 35 home runs and 99 RBIs in Cuba's Serie Nacional.
Venezuela, with major league Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, World Series MVP Pedro Sandoval and slugger Carlos Gonzalez in their potent lineup, play in Pool C in Puerto Rico against their hosts, the Dominican Republic and Spain.
Team USA opens its bracket in Phoenix on March 8 against Mexico, with Canada and Italy also in their Pool D.
The four teams that emerge from Pool C and Pool D head to second-round games in Miami to produce two semi-finalists, while the quartet that advances from the Asian round-robins play their second-round at the Tokyo Dome in Japan.
Championship round games will be in San Francisco with the semi-finals on March 17-18, and the title game on March 19.
Cano said national pride kicks in for all players.
"It's the same for everyone. It's about the country where you're born, where you grew up," he said. "Now that you've made it all the way to the top, it's a chance for you to represent your country."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)